I think Japanese students have some stages that they go through when learning Japanese, especially from a language such as English, and especially if it’s their first second language. The first stage is a kind of one-to-one correspondence between concepts. “How do you say ‘is’ in Japanese?” The answer, of course, is desu. Until it isn’t. Then you get into conjugated verb endings, etc., and you enter the second stage when you realize that there really isn’t a one to one correspondence between words.
But for a while, you’ still be trying to translate concepts from one to another – and you enter the third stage when you realize there isn’t necessarily a one to one correspondence between concepts.
You can’t learn Japanese in a vacuum. I tried, it’s hard to fit through the hose, and the motor is really noisy and makes it hard to concentrate. What I mean, though, is that the concepts of Japanese are inextricably tied to the culture, and the way that Japanese people think. And it’s not the same way as western people think. You don’t really bust through that conceptual wall until you can essentially toss western culture and see the language for exactly what it is.
And that’s really hard to do!
I have been studying, to varying degrees of success, for nearly three years now. I know some who have been studying for longer than me, and they can’t quite make that conceptual leap yet. I find it really easy to express a complex thought in one word, but many English speakers don’t. I don’t find it so easy to use particles as modifiers, like ne, no, yo, etc. I think my tendency to say as little as necessary to express a concept delights and frustrates my sensei, at the same time. She wants complete sentences, but also realizes that I’m speaking Japanese in a perfectly acceptable way that has little to do with English. She’s stopped correcting me.
Here’s a little tip for language learners: If you want to understand how people actually use language, and even better, where it’s going to go in five years, pay attention to how teenage girls use it. For some reason, they seem to be the incubators from which language innovation comes. First it seems kind of trite, and then it becomes mainstream, and even as it does, the girls have moved on tho the next thing. This is true in English, this is true in Japanese, and I think it’s true in pretty much every language where teenage girls are free to be teenage girls. It’s also true in Japanese, which is why keeping tabs on idol groups and the way they sing and talk is really important for understanding how to speak decent colloquial Japanese. Not everything takes hold, but when it does, it spreads like wildfire. I think this may be because teenage girls are significant cultural drivers – they tend to have disposable money and like to do things as a group. Language and cultural innovation will, by necessity, come from that kind of environment.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that textbooks, while useful, aren’t really a good resource for learning to speak as real native speakers do. They’ll get you far enough to understand and be understood – and don’t get me wrong, that’s a significant portion of the battle, as that’s what language is for – but it’s not going to teach you those things that will take you to the next level.
And if you look closely, the textbooks will tell you this pretty clearly themselves. For example, yookoso will not teach you two things: when to use a ‘n’ versus ‘m’ sound for ん (they’ll tell you the rules in passing and pay it no more mind), and it will not teach you pitch accent. It tells you very clearly that these are things, and it will not teach them. There are a few other things as well, such as the rules for rendaku and other consonant modification. But they’re important, and you have to know them if you want to speak well.
Teachers also will not teach you everything you need to know. I know my sensei, while a native speaker and a competent teacher with degrees in Japanese pedagogy, also will tell me on quite a few topics that she doesn’t know. I’ve actually taught her a few things, because she just takes them for granted, and I had to look them up. I’m not upset about that, because I understand her limitations, but I cannot rely upon her to teach me everything I need or want to know about Japanese. That doesn’t take away from her knowledge or competency, but it’s a big topic and just being a native speaker and knowing how to teach it doesn’t immediately grant knowledge on every topic.
I think whether or not I want to continue Japanese, I have to change my approach to the learning process, because it’s pretty clear that whatever I’m doing now isn’t really working. And that might be because I’m not really taking my own advice. It’s clear I have a pretty good idea what needs to be done, I just don’t know how to go about it.